Pittsburgh Pirates: Official Team of the Rust Belt?

Just try getting through one Steelers game without Phil Simms or Dan Dierdorf waxing poetic, drawing parallels between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the soul of Western Pennsylvania. Hard-nose, working-class football, they’ll say. They’ll point to the defense, which drew the name the Steel Curtain 40 years ago, a nickname that lingers. They’re not afraid to get dirty, they’ll say, they bring their lunch pails to work — and maybe you can picture Brett Kiesel, his feet swinging as he perches on an I-beam 15 stories up, steel lunch pail to his left, thermos to the right, half a roast beef sandwich dangling from his beard.

And I love the Steelers. I’ve been very open about that, but to say that they represent the Burgh and Western Pennsylvania better than any other, I just don’t know that that’s true.

It’s entirely possible the Pirates represent us a little better.

What do I mean?

To look over the past decade or so it’s easy to see that Western Pennsylvania is still struggling. To use Greenville as a microcosm, over that period two plants have closed, Trinity Industries and what was Warner Ladder Co., and they took with them jobs roughly equivalent to half of the borough’s population. And in Pittsburgh, although employment numbers rose to a peak in the middle of the decade, they fell again.

It’s not till now, on the other side of the recession, that things are picking up again. Rising, in most cases, even faster than the national average in recovery. And rising again in what feels like a permanent way, on the strength of UPMC, PNC, Pitt, CMU, et al. After all that time, scraping away, hoping things will get better.

And just as it’s happening, look who else is coming around. The Pittsburgh Pirates. A couple games over .500. Not much more than one game out of first. But to look over the past decade or so, it’s easy to see that the Pirates have struggled. Last year they set the North American record for consecutive losing seasons at 18. They haven’t been in the playoffs since 1992. All that time, scraping away, hoping things will get better.

Since 1992, the Steelers have been in the playoffs 13 times, in the Super Bowl four times, and won it twice. Sure they’ve had their ups and downs, specifically in the mid- to late-1980s, when Pittsburgh’s unemployment, too, was at its worst. But it seems if you could ever doubt the Steelers’ strength, you shouldn’t do it long. They’ve had their struggles but they’ve been brief.

Which is great, and it’s a testament to the Rooneys and the fan base.

But what the Pirates are doing is something different. And you can almost trace their arch along with Western Pa.’s. There’s been false starts and mistakes. You just go along each day, each game, each fiscal year, each season, just assuming it’s going to be another year of losing.

But here we are. On an upswing. And it just might be permanent.

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